The Case for Mookie Betts for American League MVP

This week, we’re going to run a series of posts laying out the case for the most compelling candidates for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. These posts are designed to make an affirmative argument for their subject and are not intended to serve as comprehensive looks at every candidate on their own. The authors tasked with writing these posts may not even believe their subject actually deserves to win, but they were brave enough to make the case anyway. The goal of these posts is to lay out the potential reasons for voters to consider a variety of candidates and to allow the readers to decide which argument is most persuasive.

Other cases: Jose Altuve for AL MVP / Mike Trout for AL MVP.

Mookie Betts has been pretty amazing this season. As we move closer to that time when writers have to submit their MVP ballots, he is going to garner attention. While he may lose some votes to his teammate David Ortiz, and faces stiff competition from the likes of Jose Altuve, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Mike Trout and others, Betts has a great case of his own.

You’re already scoffing, I can tell. Surely you think Trout deserves the award. And yes, it’s been a typically awesome Trout season. Here’s the thing, though: that’s completely irrelevant. I’m going to pull from Neil Weinberg’s piece from yesterday:

The MVP award traditionally goes to the best hitter on a playoff team. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s been 13 years since a player won the AL MVP award without making the playoffs, and only one pitcher has won since the strike.

Well, then. While that doesn’t necessarily represent a case for why Betts should win the AL MVP, it does point to the reason Trout won’t. For reference, that season to which Neil is referring belongs to Alex Rodriguez in 2003. That season, Rodriguez was a shortstop who hit 47 homers, which tied to lead all of baseball (with Jim Thome) and was five more than any AL hitter (Carlos Delgado and Frank Thomas each hit 42). This season, Trout is a center fielder tied for 26th in the majors, and is 19th in the AL.

Is that the only thing at which we should be looking? Obviously not, and if Trout hits his projection, he’ll end up with a similar WAR to Rodriguez in 2003. But even today, voters may not be using WAR as the end-all be-all, and Trout’s power numbers aren’t going to separate him from the pack. Mark Trumbo already has 41 homers, and Ortiz has Trout beat in slugging percentage by 51 points.

Betts doesn’t beat Trout in terms of slugging percentage (though it’s close), but he does in terms of raw homers. Right now, Betts has a three-homer lead. In so doing, he became just the 10th player ever to hit at least 30 home runs and steal at least 20 bases in a season by one’s age-23 season in major-league history. That’s pretty select company. This year, he was the first and currently only player to hireach t the 30-20 plateau.

The power and speed combo brings to mind possibly the biggest factor in Betts’ favor: he does everything well. Let us run down the five tools, shall we?

  • Hitting for power: Yup. 30 homers, .553 SLG, ranks t-14th and seventh in the AL, respectively
  • Hitting for average: Yup. .317 average, ranks sixth in the AL
  • Fielding Ability: Yup. His 7.2 ranks 15th overall in the AL, and fourth among AL outfielders. His 24 DRS is tied for first in the AL, his 13.2 UZR ranks fourth, and his 16.4 UZR/150 ranks sixth.
  • Throwing Ability: Yup.

    (Also, his 6.2 ARM component for UZR ranks third in the AL, and his 2 rARM component for DRS ranks seventh.)

  • Speed: Yup. His 7.9 BsR ranks third in the AL, and is the equal of Trout’s 8.1 mark. His 6.6 Spd ranks second in the AL only to Rajai Davis, and among the seven AL players who have stolen at least 20 bases, Betts and Davis are tied for the best stolen-base percentage at 87.5%. He is both prolific and efficient.

Mike Trout does most of those things well, but not all (his defense isn’t elite). Same with Donaldson (base-running), Altuve (base-running and defense), Machado (base-running) and Lindor (power). Few players do everything well. Betts is one of them.

It’s more than that, though. Let’s look at some batted-ball statistics.

Top 10 Contact% & Z-Contact%, 2016 American League
Name Team PA Swing% Z-Contact% Contact% GDP Soft% Med% Hard%
Jose Iglesias Tigers 433 43.7% 97.3% 91.6% 12 27.4% 54.4% 18.2%
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 589 43.0% 90.9% 88.4% 20 14.9% 52.5% 32.6%
Jose Ramirez Indians 516 44.1% 91.5% 88.0% 9 15.4% 58.8% 25.9%
Melky Cabrera White Sox 540 48.1% 92.8% 87.1% 15 18.2% 52.9% 28.9%
Mookie Betts Red Sox 623 41.8% 95.5% 86.9% 9 16.7% 48.0% 35.3%
Brett Gardner Yankees 525 37.0% 92.0% 86.2% 6 16.4% 57.4% 26.2%
Jose Altuve Astros 612 48.1% 91.1% 85.8% 14 14.8% 50.7% 34.5%
Albert Pujols Angels 570 46.3% 91.7% 85.7% 21 16.8% 46.3% 36.9%
Joe Mauer Twins 543 35.8% 89.7% 85.6% 8 13.7% 54.5% 31.8%
Elvis Andrus Rangers 486 42.8% 92.0% 85.4% 16 18.9% 55.2% 25.9%
Yunel Escobar Angels 485 48.4% 93.3% 84.8% 20 16.3% 56.0% 27.7%
Robinson Cano Mariners 604 51.1% 92.0% 84.0% 15 17.1% 47.8% 35.2%
Jacoby Ellsbury Yankees 529 46.3% 92.1% 83.8% 10 21.6% 50.9% 27.5%
Coco Crisp – – – 444 42.5% 91.9% 83.0% 6 17.1% 58.7% 24.2%
Yonder Alonso Athletics 443 46.8% 93.9% 83.0% 14 18.2% 49.3% 32.6%

As you can see, Betts puts the ball in play as much as anyone in the AL. His Contact% ranks fifth among qualified players. His Z-Contact% is even better — it ranks second-best. This, despite the fact that Betts swings at relatively few pitches. He swings five percent less frequently than the league average, but makes contact more than eight percent more frequently. Beyond making him a more exciting player (when he swings something happens), there’s also the value of making contact with such frequency. Contact was one of the calling cards of the Royals’ World Series teams. Dave Cameron found this March that, as with those Royals clubs, teams that produced elite contact rates were more likely to outperform their BaseRuns records. In other words, there’s quite possibly some value that an elite contact hitter like Betts is providing that really doesn’t show up in the box score.

There’s also the matter of the quality of that contact. While Jose Iglesias makes contact more frequently both in the zone and overall, he also has the highest Soft% in the AL. Betts, meanwhile, has a relatively low Soft%. He’s also hard to double up. His teammate Dustin Pedroia makes contact more frequently, but has also grounded into twice as many double plays. Altuve has hit into five more double plays. Simply put, Betts puts the ball in play more frequently than most, and when he does, you can count on something interesting happening more often than not.

Finally, Betts was at his best when the team needed him the most. If you look at a rolling average of the Red Sox runs scored by game plotted against a rolling average of Betts’ wOBA, you see that when the team struggled most at the end of July and the beginning of August, Betts was at his best:

Mookie Betts wOBA

From July 25th through August 11th, the Sox only scored 3.65 runs per game. During that span, Betts hit .344/.397/.641, good for a .427 wOBA and 166 wRC+. But he decided that wasn’t good enough, and almost singlehandedly pulled them out of the slump by hitting five homers in the next five games. No biggie. Unsurprisingly, Betts recorded one of the American League’s the highest WPA marks in August. Just above Mike Trout.

Mookie Betts is one of the best players in the American League. Mike Trout is better, but no one cares — his team is terrible. Of the players on good teams, Betts stands out the most — and whether that should make a difference, it will make a difference. He does everything well, he is always doing something exciting, and when his team needed him the most, he was there. In other words, he’s everything an MVP should be — a five-tool, electric, awesome player on a playoff-contending team. What else could you possibly want?





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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phoenix2042
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phoenix2042

I get that Trout is the man to beat in these articles. And the only way to beat him is to disqualify him because the Angels are bad. Once you do that, then you pretty much don’t need to talk about him anymore. The next order of business is to prove that your candidate (Betts in this case) is more deserving than the others that are left (Donaldson, Machado, Altuve). While I thought that this article made some good points, as did the Altuve article, I think they both still need to address the non-Trout contenders more than they do.

How does Betts stack up against Donaldson for example? You showed that really cool graph of his production against the Red Sox runs scoring to show that he has carried them through tough stretches. Did Donaldson maybe not carry his team as well? Perhaps his hot streaks coincide with the rest of his team so his contributions are less important? If that were the case, that could be very persuasive to show that Betts was perhaps more “valuable” to his team than Donaldson. By barely mentioning the competition (besides Trout whom you already disqualified), you miss an opportunity to be your most persuasive.

You have a really hard assignment in arguing against Trout, perhaps impossible. So I know this is not an easy article to write. Thanks for arguing the difficult one!

Doorknob11
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Doorknob11

That was my thought, this and the Altuve article seemed more like “who should win second place to Trout” articles

rockbard
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rockbard

Every non-Trout article will be “Discounting Trout, this candidate is the best at…”. I agree with the above poster, in that the author didn’t compare Betts to other candidates, with makes the claim that Betts was there when his team needed him the most suspicious.

phoenix2042
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phoenix2042

Also what I really want to see one of these articles do is have charts/graphs that only have Betts, Machado, Donaldson, Altuve on them. I want to see “hey Betts has been better at this, but Machado has him in this, etc.” Compare the contenders side by side!

eyesoverthecity
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eyesoverthecity